After the abbreviated seasons last spring, high school sports across the state returned to their usual full-season format this past fall.
There were some bumps along the way, with COVID-19 cases and protocols forcing some programs to temporarily shut down and cancel games.
But for most local teams, the fall was at least somewhat of a return to normalcy.
It’s been a much different story this winter.
With coronavirus infections spiking dramatically during the past month’s omicron surge, a seemingly constant wave of COVID-19-related cancellations and program shutdowns across the area have wreaked havoc on the winter sports season.
On top of that, the late-December snowstorm resulted in even more canceled events and kept many local teams from practicing over the latter half of winter break.
And complicating matters are the ongoing officiating shortages, which have made rescheduling games increasingly difficult — if not nearly impossible.
As one local basketball coach said, it’s been a “three-headed monster” of COVID-19, inclement weather and not enough officials.
“It’s definitely affected all of our sports programs throughout our league and throughout the state,” Snohomish High School athletic director Mark Perry said.
‘It’s just been so hard’
With about two weeks left in the regular season, Marysville Pilchuck boys basketball is one of many local hoops teams that have played just 10 or fewer games.
Earlier this season — due to a combination of COVID-19 protocols, snow and holidays — Marysville Pilchuck went 17 consecutive days without any a single game, practice or team activity.
Marysville Pilchuck finally returned to practice on Jan. 10. Despite the long layoff, the team played a league game the very next night.
“This season’s theme has most definitely been flexibility and perseverance,” Marysville Pilchuck coach Luke Carpenter said.
Lakewood boys basketball is another team that’s been sidelined for a long stretch.
The Cougars, one of the few local teams that played games over winter break, traveled to Yakima for two games between Christmas and New Year’s. But the following week, more than 10 individuals in the program tested positive for COVID-19, according to Lakewood coach Anthony Wiederkehr.
By last week, Wiederkehr said his entire varsity team and coaching staff had tested positive within the past month.
Prior to their scheduled game Friday night, the Cougars hadn’t played in 23 days. At one point, only one coach in the entire program was available to run practice.
“We have had very few constructive practices,” Wiederkehr said. “… At this point, I almost feel as if we are restarting the season.”
Meadowdale boys basketball has had not one, but two long layoffs.
The Mavericks went 20 days between games from Dec. 16 to Jan. 5. During that span, the snowstorm forced two games to be canceled and nearly all of the team’s winter break practices to be optional.
Meadowdale returned to action with three games earlier this month. But last week, the varsity team had to shut down and cancel more games due to COVID-19 protocols. The Mavericks are scheduled to end a two-week gap between games next Tuesday — when they’re slated to play just their fourth game in 40 days.
“It’s (been) tough on players and coaches alike,” Meadowdale coach Roger O’Neill said.
Numerous other local basketball teams have experienced similar disruptions.
Prior to Friday night, the Granite Falls boys had played just six games this season. That included a stretch of one game in 39 days.
The Mountlake Terrace boys and Sultan boys each had a 26-day span between games. The Glacier Peak boys and Cascade boys each went 22 days between games.
The Mountlake Terrace girls and Marysville Pilchuck girls each had a stretch of just two games in 31 days. The Stanwood girls and Lynnwood girls each played just two games in 28 days.
“It’s just really frustrating and hard to have any kind of continuity that you normally get in a season,” Arlington girls basketball coach Joe Marsh said. “As a coach, you have a plan for the season and where you wanna be at certain times conditioning-wise (and) all those things. And it’s just been so hard. Everybody’s in the same boat.”
In a normal year, most Wesco basketball teams would’ve played about 14 or 15 of their 20 regular-season games by this point.
But following Thursday night’s slate, the average Wesco hoops team had played just 10.6 games.
And even if a team is able to play, that doesn’t mean it’s at full strength. The Mariner boys basketball team, for instance, played a game with just six players earlier this season.
“At this point, my focus has been trying to give the upperclassmen a real season,” Stanwood girls basketball coach Alex Iverson said. “Trying to plan for the postseason is impossible with how up and down everything is.
“These juniors and seniors have had a rough couple of years, and just trying to get the games and a good experience has been my biggest concern.”
Wrestling went through a challenging period in mid-December, when some local programs temporarily shut down following a number of weekend tournaments around the Puget Sound region and state that resulted in COVID-19 outbreaks.
Some weekend wrestling tournaments have continued to take place, but others have been canceled.
“It has been harder to find big weekend tournaments this year,” Cascade boys wrestling coach Phil Brandstetter said. “There are still tournaments, but they are becoming fewer — not just because of COVID, but also a shortage of officials.
“It’s a bit dog-eat-dog in trying to get into tournaments early so there is room for your team.”
Similar to basketball, cancellations have wiped out numerous wrestling matches throughout the area.
“(The) biggest challenge is trying to get prepared for competition while also mentally preparing yourself for a cancellation,” Jackson wrestling coach Matt McClinchy said.
In boys swim and dive, Lake Stevens is among at least a handful of teams that have completed all of their scheduled league dual meets so far.
“We’ve been incredibly blessed that we haven’t had our season interrupted yet,” Lake Stevens swim coach Brady Dykgraaf said. “We are a low-risk sport, but the kids also took it upon themselves to make sure they’re doing what has to happen to get through the season.”
The Jackson boys swim and dive team hasn’t been as fortunate. The Timberwolves have canceled four meets and competed in just three. They’re planning to make up one meet as part of a tri-meet next week.
“There’s no doubt that there’s been challenges for every sport,” Wesco president Don Dalziel said. “However, I keep coming back to this with (athletic directors) when we discuss: Nothing’s normal. If we want this to feel like normal, then we’re gonna have to wait a little bit longer. And if we try to fix it like everything’s normal, then it’s not gonna work out.
“So we have to show grace. We have to be flexible. We have to be satisfied with the opportunities that we have, even if it’s not exactly how it was drawn up at the beginning of the season.”
‘Every day, something new’
Athletes in and out of COVID-19 protocols. A slew of rescheduled games on the fly. And the constant uncertainty over what lies ahead.
For seemingly everyone involved, the winter sports season has been a stressful ordeal.
“There are always moving parts every day,” Lake Stevens girls basketball coach Randy Edens said. “Every day, something new.”
High school athletes, coaches, trainers and support personnel involved in high-contact indoor sports, regardless of vaccination status, must undergo COVID-19 screening testing at least three times per week, according to current state Department of Health requirements.
At least one of the three weekly tests must occur within one day of competition, and ideally on the day of competition, per the DOH.
Individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 within the past 90 days don’t need to participate in screening testing, unless they are symptomatic.
Athletes, coaches and others involved in moderate-contact or low-contact indoor sports are recommended, but not required, to be tested once or twice per week.
Basketball and wrestling are both considered high-contact indoor sports. Swim and dive is a low-contact indoor sport.
The current DOH testing requirements were implemented on Dec. 17, following the series of outbreaks linked to wrestling tournaments earlier that month.
Previously, unvaccinated athletes in high-contact indoor sports were required to be tested twice per week, but vaccinated athletes weren’t required to be tested.
The new testing requirements have coincided with the surge of the highly contagious omicron variant.
According to Snohomish Health District data, Snohomish County had an average of about 2,997 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents between Jan. 2 and Jan. 15. Prior to December, the county’s two-week rolling average hadn’t topped 500 cases per 100,000 at any point during the pandemic.
“We’re following guidance of the (Washington Interscholastic Activities Association), DOH and the governor’s office,” Dalziel said. “That has been steadfast since we were doing this last year. So we’ll continue as a league to follow those guidances.”
In response to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated guidelines, the DOH recently reduced the isolation time to five days for athletes who test positive for COVID-19.
After their five-day isolation, athletes can return to their sport if they have no symptoms. They must wear a mask around others — including in practices and competitions — for days 6-10.
A variety of factors, including vaccination status, determine whether an athlete has to quarantine for five days after coming in close contact with an infected person. Athletes can forego quarantine through “test-to-stay” policies if they test negative.
Protocols differ among school districts for determining whether a team with COVID-19 cases can continue practicing and playing, or whether it must temporarily shut down, according to Perry, the Snohomish athletic director.
“Whenever we get multiple positives on a team, we contact the (county) health department and just look for their guidance,” Stanwood athletic director Tom Wilfong said.
Oftentimes, teams have to wait until the afternoon of a game to find out whether it’ll still be played.
“We can’t get all our testing done during the course of the day, so you’re still testing after school,” Wilfong said.
And when cancellations happen, athletic directors are left scrambling to find replacement opponents on short notice.
Earlier this month, the Arlington girls basketball team faced Tahoma in a game that was scheduled just the day before. In another recent instance, the Glacier Peak boys basketball team played Cedar Park Christian in a contest that was scheduled earlier that same day.
“From our seat, it’s just trying to be flexible and trying to get in as many games as we possibly can for our coaches and athletes,” Perry said.
And as chaotic as the scheduling merry-go-round is for athletes and coaches, it affects more than just them.
“We’ve gotta find a ticket seller, clock operators, a book person and get officials,” Perry said. “You are scrambling to make everything happen in a matter of minutes, so that you don’t lose the officials that you have before they get assigned to another game. It’s just so hard and challenging.”
“The poor officials, my gosh,” Wilfong added. “… It’s amazing the work they’re having to do just to try to keep the games going for people.”
While some basketball teams have been able to fill holes in their schedules with non-league opponents, Dalziel said it’s becoming exceedingly difficult to make up canceled league games at this point in the season.
“With cancellations and lack of officials and COVID, it’s really almost impossible for us to be able to try to make up games that we lose,” he said.
‘Postseason is a massive concern’
With the postseason quickly approaching, there are a number of challenges and concerns surrounding district and state events.
In basketball, one issue is seeding teams for district tournaments. Because of all the cancellations, teams in the same league will have played an uneven number of conference games. And some teams will have played more games against the league’s top teams, while others will have had more games against the lower-tier teams.
“You’re not comparing apples to apples when you look at somebody’s end-of-the-season record,” Perry said.
To combat that, District 1 has altered its format for the Class 3A boys and girls district basketball tournaments.
The new tournament format has been expanded to include all 16 teams in the district, while giving an advantage to the top eight seeds. Teams will be seeded by a committee that takes into account factors such as win-loss record, head-to-head results, cancellations and the state’s Ratings Percentage Index, according to Dalziel.
At the moment, Wesco 4A and KingCo 4A are planning to hold their 4A bi-district basketball tournaments under their original 10-team format, according to Glacier Peak athletic director Kevin Judkins.
“We are still weighing different options if more league games get canceled and are not able to be made up,” Judkins said.
So far, no changes have been made to the postseason formats for wrestling and boys swim and dive.
“At this point, we’re still planning on a normal postseason for those sports without any modifications to what we currently have,” Dalziel said.
Among coaches, one of the biggest fears is the possibility of state-caliber teams getting eliminated from the postseason due to COVID-19-related forfeits.
“I would have trouble living with the idea that teams had (COVID-19) during the season and it had no impact on postseason, but these teams got it at the wrong time of the year and are now eliminated from postseason,” said Snohomish girls basketball coach Ken Roberts, whose team is ranked No. 5 in the Associated Press 3A state poll. “That is difficult to deal with.
“We need to take a closer look at the possibility of what could happen and do all that we can to not have basketball seasons and high school basketball careers end because of a lack of foresight in planning for possibilities.”
Edens, whose Lake Stevens girls basketball team is ranked No. 7 in 4A, echoed that sentiment.
“Postseason is a massive concern,” Edens said. “We need to protect teams that had great seasons and not have a COVID issue impact whether they get to a state tournament or not.
“Top seeds should be protected to get that state experience, since we didn’t get it last year. They should still have to win to get in, but perhaps not as many games because of the potential for COVID issues.”
“It’s bound to be really unfair,” added Jackson boys basketball coach Steve Johnson, whose team is ranked 10th in 4A. “A lot of the gut of the season will come down to who was hit by COVID the least at the right times.”
According to a Seattle Times report earlier this month, the WIAA has no plans to alter or cancel state events.
But after all that’s transpired over the past two years, coaches know nothing is certain.
“I think if you’re not worried about cancellations, you’re lying to yourself,” said Brandstetter, the Cascade boys wrestling coach. “It might feel unfair and wrong, but it’s where we are. All we can do is make sure we take every step necessary to keep the kids on the mats and working, whatever that might be.”
“I think in the back of our heads, we are all a little worried about how districts and state might end up,” said Dykgraaf, the Lake Stevens boys swimming coach. “But ultimately, these athletes will make the most out of whatever they get, so it’s our job to make sure they are prepared.”
Even with all the challenges of this winter sports season, most athletes and coaches undoubtedly would agree it’s better than where things were at this point last year — when high school sports across the state were still in the midst of a 12-month layoff.
“It’s challenging,” Perry said. “There’s no doubt about that. But when it comes down to it — whether you’re a coach, an athlete or an athletic director — the alternative is not playing at all.
“And we’d all take the extra work and the challenge of putting things back together … for our athletes.”
Talk to us
- You can tell us about news and ask us about our journalism by emailing email@example.com or by calling 425-339-3428.
- If you have an opinion you wish to share for publication, send a letter to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org or by regular mail to The Daily Herald, Letters, P.O. Box 930, Everett, WA 98206.
- More contact information is here.